Ladakh, the dark side of paradise

Urvashi Butalia | Updated on July 26, 2019

You’re on camera: The image of the Ladakhi woman — with the turquoise-studded perag adorning her head — is a common frame of reference among tourists   -  ISTOCK.COM

A recent protest march — in support of a woman who complained of sexual harassment — uncovered ugly truths about a place that shines in tourism brochures

In the marketplace in Leh town in Ladakh, I saw about 20 village women flanking the main street. Each had a selection of vegetables and fruit laid out in front of her — spinach, brinjals, turnips, apricots, apples and more. They called out to passers-by and offered them a taste of sweet, ripe apricots. They laughed and joked with each other and with customers. They spoke Ladakhi but were equally fluent in Hindi.

I stopped at one stall, intrigued by a longish green vegetable — a sort of a cross between a celery stick and a gaanth gobi (kohlrabi) — and asked the woman running it what it was. She picked it up, turned it this way and that, and then addressed my friend, a local, “Do you know what this is? It’s something! All those tourists [foreigners] eat it!” This was followed by chatter and speculation on how to chop, slice and cook this strange thing.

“All these women come from quite far,” said my young companion. They lug the produce and sit here all day trying to sell it. These are things they grow in their homes, and, at the end of the day, they’ll take back a small sum for their families.” She added that the women are working harder to cater to the needs of the tourist. It brings them more money but the load has also multiplied.

Some weeks ago, this marketplace — the hub for tourists visiting Leh — was the venue for a different kind of gathering. It was here that protesters came together to march against incidents of sexual harassment at the hands of senior Ladakhi officials. The demonstration brought together the young and the old from all classes and backgrounds: Students, teachers, workers and even some of the vendors I had just met.

Recent incidents of sexual harassment have highlighted the ugly reality of a part of India normally seen as a paradise of sorts. With its commonly accepted image of Shangri-La, dominated by tourists from India and abroad, feminist protests are not what one expects to find in Ladakh. Instead, the image of the Ladakhi woman as someone balancing tradition and modernity — but more liberated than many in some other parts of the country — has for long been the dominant one.

Every tourist brochure provides evidence of this: The image of the smiling Ladakhi woman with the beaded, turquoise-studded perag adorning her head is a common one. She looks beautiful and happy.

The reality is more complex. At one level, there’s little doubt that Ladakh’s two main communities — the Buddhists and the Muslims — have by and large lived together in harmony. And the Ladakhi woman is indeed hardy and brave.

To a casual observer, Leh provides ample evidence of the freedom its women are said to enjoy. All kinds of small businesses — restaurants, cafés, homestays and small hotels — are run by women. They are seen at petrol pumps; they are in charge of police stations. They are visible, often alone, on lonely stretches of road, and they travel to work and back by hitch-hiking, the standard form of transport in and outside of Leh. “We hitch-hike everywhere,” a woman student told me. “We flag down cars even at night — though we make sure that we are not alone when asking for a lift at night.”

And yet, patriarchy has deep roots in Ladakh and works in complex ways.

Recently, a teenager accused Tsewang Thinles, president of the Ladakhi Buddhist Association, of molestation. The charge, filed at a women’s police station in Leh, resulted in the swift removal of Thinles from his post. At the protest march that followed, student leaders spoke out in support of the complainant and lauded her courage, in the hope that her move would inspire others to speak out.

“We’re lucky that action was taken this time,” said a young woman I met during my visit last week. “People are so concerned about maintaining Ladakh’s image as Shangri-La that they won’t acknowledge its ugly side. And that makes it so much more difficult for us,” she continued.

These are difficult conversations for any society — all the more so when the surface reality is one of freedom and harmony. “We have to find a way to raise these issues,” said my young friend, “but we’ve also got to keep the social balance... It’s a tough challenge.”



Urvashi Butalia is an editor, publisher and director of Zubaan;


Published on July 26, 2019

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